Remembering Uli - The Lost Art Of Igbo Beautification
By Iwedi Ojinmah 6 months ago
Long before the era of droopy pants, piercing in the face and tattoos almost everywhere many here may be aghast to know that the latter actually existed among the Igbo zillions of years ago and was widely celebrated.
But it was classier - way classier.
Yes not only did the Igbo appreciate and practice surface tattooing, but their heritage also cannot be fully discussed without a look at the almost extinct uli body and wall painting practised by Igbo women.
The name "uli" is derived from the Igbo names of the plants that are processed to produce the dye used to stain on designs. According to local mythology, the practice developed as a gift from Ala, the goddess of earth, who blessed women with the ability to create art, as demonstrated through the creation of uli.
The designs themselves are derived from natural forms such as animal patterns, like leopard spots or python markings, as well as other abstract forms (below), such as the female body or knotted designs. Though the historical origins of the practice of uli are unknown, uli designs have been found on Igbo-ukwu bronzes, indicating that the practice has been in usage since the 9th century.
This art form is rendered by Igbo women in four colours namely white, yellow, reddish-brown and black.
The decline of uli art in the postcolonial period is a reflection of the sorry state of cultural heritage in Igbo land and Nigeria in general. After the introduction of Christian missionaries, the practice of uli declined across Nigeria as uli began to be viewed as too heavily associated with Odinani the traditional Igbo religion and not reconcilable with Christianity.
Every people have their common heritage which derives from their history and identity. If by heritage we mean tangible and intangible resources deriving from tradition and the past with which the present can be buttressed, then heritage becomes the datum with which the present can engage the past and the future in all forms meaningful dialogue.
As Professor John Picton an astute scholar of Nigerian art and archaeology has argued, although these art forms have often been labelled “traditional”, they remain “contemporary” so long as they are practised as part of the reality of a subsisting culture.
Although it thrives on freedom and spontaneity, there are general rules and principles for uli.
The uli artists were a highly respected group of women in Igbo society. The art was passed on from mother to daughter in line with the vernacular education. None of these women was held in such high esteem as the quintessential uli painter, Eziafo Okaro (below), from Ogidi, in Anambra State, Nigeria. She was also famous for living with a python and going into a trance-like state and communicating with her customer before picking the appropriate motif and painting it perfectly despite being quasi-blind.
She was the Picasso of uli.
Until her death on February 28, 2014 people came from near and far to have their bodies adorned with her murals and even in Japan today her designs have jumped cultures and remain celebrated and worn with pride. Especially among the Yakuza.
The techniques used for uli body decoration are the same all over Igbo land. Preparing the skin to be painted with uli designs is an important part of the total aesthetic process. Sometimes in order to achieve a smooth surface body hair is shaved onto which ufie (camwood) is rubbed. Not only that it provides a good foundation for uli application, ufie also serves as an antiperspirant in the sense that when uli dye is carefully applied (below), there is no danger of the designs being smeared or smudged
The application of uli design motifs on the body usually takes place in the evening when the heat from the sun has reduced drastically and the process lasts for a long period and does not only depend on the available space on the body to be decorated but how elaborate and intricate the designs appear.
The choice of evening period is to avoid the blazing afternoon sun from drying the uli juice which is exposed in the okwa uli (uli palette) and for the person being decorated not to sweat. Anybody painted with uli designs will stay for a long period before engaging in any work so that his body will not produce sweat. The person being painted or decorated usually stands, sits or lies down on a mat or large leaves such as that of the banana which is usually spread on the ground, while the designer either sits or stands.
Then there is also the uli wall painting. Although derived originally from the body drawing, it is bolder, more vigorous and is rarely the exertion of one. Rather painters in a typical uli mural may number between 2 and 20 (below) depending on the situation or context. Uli painting is a spontaneous process of exploration and experimentation.
No two painters may contrive exactly the same design ideas and elements. Inspiration is derived from diverse experiences as are the motifs which draw from forms in nature and issues in existence.
Before the pigments are applied, the walls are first sized using laterite (aja upa), a mud slip that fills in cracks in the wall. The surface is then further burnished using fine pebbles (mkpulu nwko). A final layer of primer, a red mud slip, is then applied to the wall in order to create a three-dimensional surface to work on. Artists apply this slip by moving their fingers in rhythmic patterns, creating curvilinear patterns on the surface of the wall. The pigments are then mixed with water and applied to the wall using the artist's hands, twigs, feathers, or using the mmanwauli (uli knife). Currently, some artists choose to use sponges or paint brushes to apply pigment. The designs are often applied by a larger group of women but generally are designed by the most experienced and skilled.
The end result as shown (below) is simply stunning.
With the reintroduction of History in the curriculum of Nigerian Schools, we hope that study and appreciation of forms like uli will again be appreciated and elevated to the position within society, that it should have never lost in the first place.
Beauty is beauty and nothing can tarnish that especially so it finds it anchor and roots in one's culture.